By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia
Milton rivals Dante for the range and depth of his influence through his literary work on our thinking about the nature of evil. His overall work is obsessed with the question of evil. His writings on education, on liberty of speech, his anti-monarch writings, even his arguments about divorce all revolve around how to avoid or limit our own corruption by evil.
Milton: A Rebel
John Milton began writing Paradise Lost in the waning days of the Commonwealth, when it was increasingly clear that the government would not survive, and moving into the domestic semi-exile he suffered in the Restoration era.
He was a rebel himself, and then one who helped to govern, and then saw that rebellion and that government collapse. He was caught in fierce conflict that had violently divided England throughout the 17th century between Calvinist republicans and Catholic monarchists.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Milton as a Political thinker
Milton was not a republican as understood in terms of present-day political parties but in the sense of being a political thinker who believed that the proper shape of a human governance is actually to be one of self-governance by the people who are being governed. He was someone who believed that the people as a whole have to govern themselves, not be governed by a king.
He was also not just a literary figure, but a controversialist and polemicist against the Catholic-sympathizing King Charles I and became eventually a major player in the Commonwealth Government of Oliver Cromwell after the deposition and then execution of the king.
Learn more about Cromwellian England (1653-60).
Writing Paradise Lost
At the royal Restoration in 1660 of the executed king’s son, he was condemned and his writings were burnt, but he went into hiding and survived until a general amnesty was pronounced.
When Milton began the composition of the work that he is best known for, Paradise Lost, he was completely blind the entire time he wrote it. He would compose the verses in silence in his mind during the day, and then recite them in the evening aloud for his daughters or for an amanuensis, a secretary he had, who would write them down word for word as he gave them verbally to them.
Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, which is deeply learned in Calvinist and Puritan theology, was written, as he says early on in the poem, “to justify the ways of God to man”; to demonstrate that while the Fall was real and evil, we still live in a fundamentally good universe and we must be grateful to the God who governs this universe.
He’s not trying to whitewash the Fall or say it was for a larger good or a necessary thing; he’s not an Irenaean theodicist in that sense. This poem provides one of the most powerful and vivid depictions of the nature of evil, both of the character of temptation and the slow (or fast) descent into sin and corruption.
Writing about Evil
Milton’s vision of the nature of metaphysical evil considered in itself is represented best really in the figure of Satan, and the character of humans when they come in contact with it is, of course, the study of what happens with Adam and Eve.
Nonetheless, there was a difficulty that Milton had that Dante did not: the difficulty of writing directly about evil. Dante didn’t do that; Dante wrote about an ordinary person, one like us, coming to see evil for what it is. He did not write about evil’s self-understanding in itself. Because of the challenge that the structure of his poem sets him, Milton has to write about evil in itself.
To do that, he has to really bend metaphors in complicated ways, not just in thinking about Satan and Satan’s inner life, but even in his descriptions of Hell; so that famously Milton describes Hell as a kind of “darkness visible.” More importantly, though, these metaphors he is using rest back on a history of paradoxical metaphors used to think about evil, many of which rely on this very early pattern formulated first in Latin and a practice that enters into medieval Christian rituals, and then begins to be something that both Roman Catholics and Protestants use.
Learn more about Satan’s punishment.
The Happy Fault in Paradise Lost
It uses the category of what’s called in Latin the felix culpa—the “happy fault.” If you think about Hell as a kind of visible darkness, which is what Milton wants to talk about it as, it’s possible also to talk about evil in the context of Christian theology as a happy fault, because it turns out that it’s only because the humans fell that Christ comes to save everybody.
This is the view of much orthodox Christian theology. The argument is, in a sense, that it was of a necessity for humans to fall so that Christ would come, which is a great blessing.
The Representation of Satan
The difficultly of talking directly about evil in these ways is far more profound then one might first realize, and much more difficult than it may at first appear.
Many have wondered over time, over centuries, whether Milton’s representation of Satan is in some ways too powerful, too vivid, too seductive. The vision of him in his psychic agony, the tortured nature of his motives, and his self-torture at his destiny, presents a remarkably seductive picture of evil.
Milton’s depiction of evil in its purest satanic form is not in fact an elevation of Satan, except in the sense that a specimen is raised up to us so that we may look at it more closely. When one considers the motives and rationales of Satan and Adam, if there is any tragedy in the poem it lies in Adam’s choice of Eve, not in Satan’s choice of himself; and this explains the rebel Milton’s decision to write an epic where the rebellion was satanic.
Common Questions about Milton: Descent into Evil
Milton was a republican in the sense that he believed that the proper shape of a human governance is actually to be one of self-governance by the people who are being governed.
Milton faced the difficulty of writing directly about evil. Dante did not. Dante wrote about an ordinary person, one like us, coming to see evil for what it is.
According to orthodox Christian theology, it was of a necessity for humans to fall so that Christ would come, which was a great blessing.